On 2 April 2015, Gursimran Bhullar, a twenty-two-year-old Canadian basketball player of Indian origin, signed a ten-day contract with the Sacramento Kings—a professional basketball team in California—to become the first player of Indian descent to be on an NBA (National Basketball Association) team's regular season roster. His twenty-year-old brother Tanveer plays for New Mexico State and may be on his way to making a debut with the NBA in future as well. In a story from our June 2014 issue, Adam B Lerner profiled Satnam Singh Bhamara, one of the four Indian players to win a scholarship from IMG Reliance, a partnership between the International Management Group Worldwide, a New-York based global sports and media company that runs the IMG Academy, and Reliance Industries Limited, India's largest private-sectior corporation. In this excerpt from the story, Lerner takes a look at Bhamara's beginnings in Ludhiana and his prospects with the NBA.
SATNAM SINGH BHAMARA grew up on a farm in the Punjabi village of Baloke, about seventy kilometres from Ludhiana, in a dusty brick house that now sports the village’s only basketball hoop, mounted delicately on a wall above a hardened dirt driveway. There, Balbir, his seven-foot-three-inch father, grows maize, wheat and rice, runs a flour mill, and raises dairy buffalo to support the family. Balbir, who was also once the village sarpanch, had heard of basketball in his youth but never played it. “My family didn’t consider basketball,” he told CNN in a 2012 segment profiling Bhamara—he was expected to work in the same profession as his father.
But by the time Satnam was born, in 1995, word of international superstars like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, and of the enormous earning of those who made it to the world’s top leagues, had trickled into rural India through televisions and newspapers. When Bhamara was nine years old and already almost six feet tall, a family friend recommended the sport. His father read in a newspaper that the Ludhiana Basketball Academy was calling for “tall and talented” players to come train there.
The Academy, which is one of India’s best training centres, opened in 2002 with funding from a UK-based non-resident Indian. When Bhamara visited, the Punjab Basketball Association officials who run the school immediately took note. As the saying goes, you can’t teach height—the Bhamara family’s most obviously exceptional quality. Bhamara received a scholarship to live and train at the academy the following year.
I traveled to Ludhiana last December. Harjinder Singh, an incredibly tall Sikh with a beaming smile who is the Punjabi state team coach, picked me up on his motorcycle from the clock tower at the centre of town and took me to the academy. There he immediately invited me to join a scrimmage by way of introduction to the players training that day. They included several of India’s finest young athletes, some of them Bhamara’s old friends.